Director: Matt Reeves
Verdict: Pretty sweet, mid-low four stars
It really doesn’t help that with the main ape characters being called Koba I got a version of a Lady Gaga song going Koba Face stuck in my head and also reimagined a hit children’s film called Koba and the Two Strings. Hm.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the sequel to the prequel to maybe the remake maybe not to the five film Charlton Heston franchise, book adaptation Planet of the Apes, the film which now has a sequel, but the two before that one have a really silly way of ordering their prefixes, Dawn and Rise, so that the Rise somehow comes before the Dawn, which is in common imagery known to be the start of things. Fuck me. It is absolutely astonishing that this all began with a relatively innocuous novel by a man called Pierre Boulle, (who incidentally won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai with two other blacklisted writers who didn’t get credit, because America is allergic to left wing politics, apparently). Anyway, you might be wondering why I’m reviewing this, and the answer is simple, I haven’t seen it and the sequel is coming out and I want to be relevant. Like me please.
The film begins with a really kind of extraordinary sequence, (after a kind of naff and overplayed news reel montage catching you up on the history between films), of the apes living their day to day. I actually think it’s incredibly important that it starts with the apes because it is as much about them as it is the humans. They talk to each other almost universally in sign language, which they kind of forget about towards the end but oh well. A human then shoots an ape and political tensions rise.
There are good things and bad things about the movie, good things first. The performances for one, everyone puts in really good shifts, not least Jason Clarke who could be called ‘The Lead Human’ of the story because really Ceasar is the lead character. Mainstream audiences will probably know him best from Everest or Zero Dark Thirty and as much as I adore Zero Dark Thirty, I think this contains the best performance I’ve seen from him. It’s really low key, he doesn’t exactly have an Oscar moment but it’s played with a lot of empathy and realness, he just feels like a human trying his best, as much as Ceasar feels like an ape trying his best. On the subject of Ceasar; played by one of my favourite people ever in Andy Serkis, (24 Hour Party People, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), and thanks to the advances in motion capture Ceasar is so recognisably an Andy Serkis performance it is absolutely incredible. It’s like in Mark Kermode’s review of Avatar, talking about Sigourney Weaver (Alien), having such a distinctive smile her avatar is so clearly her it’s incredible. Whereas Andy Serkis has such a distinctive scowl Ceasar is unmistakably him, and his performance is really good. I think lamentations at him not being Oscar nominated were kind of unwarranted because the performance doesn’t actually require that much acting from him as opposed to his turns in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll or 24 Hour Party People, but it’s a perfectly fine performance with some great physical acting.
The production design from James Chinlund, (Requiem for a Dream, Avengers Assemble), I want to draw special attention to. It really appropriately, and strikingly, evokes the two worlds of humans in apes in ways that make sense and looks really impressive. Also, the score by Michael Seresin, (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Midnight Express), is also a particular standout attribute to the film.
What is particularly impressive about the film though are the themes it brings up, there is an interesting underlying commentary on colonialism and appropriation, intentional or not that subtext is definitely going on. The apes are trying to build their own society but can only do so using the tools and language of their old oppressors, and the only way to make the apes seem human to its human audience is by making them seem as human as possible whereas they could easily be as complex, interesting, and exciting if they shared none of our facial characteristics or common manors of communicating emotion in tone and body language but we have to appropriate this fictional society and box it within our own culture in order to make it accessible. Before you call bullshit I’ve heard people bring this up in relation to War for the Planet of the Apes who are French therefore much more cultured than me so fuck you. This is on top of its already interesting debate on political theory, which takes the idea of ‘how long can you have a nine-year-old throwing shit around in a supermarket before you stop blaming the child and start blaming the parents to political revolution against originally noble intentions and philosophies.
It is as much stylistically influenced by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as it is thematically by Animal Farm. The kind of chill brought about by the Vagnerian wailing of the monolith on the Moon scene is replicated no end in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This Kubrick influence somehow turns a scene of things exploding around apes riding on horseback carrying machine guns whilst Gary Oldman, (Léon: The Professional, The Dark Knight), shouts to get him the rocket launcher from something potentially incredibly dumb into something kinda profound and elegiac and beautiful.
Now onto the problems, of which there are a few. Not least that there is A LOT of elements that clearly seem to exist purely for plot reasons. I mean A LOT.
There is also an issue of representation. The roles for females are frankly appalling and play into a very dated idea of what women are capable of and what roles they should take and there really is no excuse. There’s also an issue over POC representation. The film takes heritage from films like Apocalypse Now for its war scenes, and that kind of Vietnam war aesthetic is represented in the diversity of the soldiers in the film but then when you look at a sea of civilians, it is just a sea of white faces and given the diversity of the people who exist in the film purely to fight that is significantly off-putting. Especially given the egalitarian message of the film. It just is the epitome of white-by-default.
There is also a retconning of the original reason for human extinction being nuclear war now replaced by an imaginary virus which being in the universe that it is, is slightly incongruous but oh well.
That being said, it is especially pertinent to the time we live in and delivers it’s ‘fake news’ criticism far more eloquently than It Comes at Night which I also like a lot. It’s also an engaging action, science-fiction film that does devolve into CGI nonsense at the end, slightly losing its way, but it does always keep its eye on character importantly, and I did tear up at the end. Well done Matt Reeves, (Cloverfield, Let Me In).